Music in the Church: A Conversation with Elder O. Leslie Stone

O. Leslie Stone

Elder O. Leslie Stone

Several months ago Elder O. Leslie Stone, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, was called by the First Presidency to serve as managing director of the new Church Music Department. In the following interview conducted with members of the Ensign staff, Elder Stone discusses his new assignment.

Q: What are the goals and challenges of the Church Music Department?

Elder Stone: Our task has been set out very well by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve, who, with Elder Mark E. Petersen, is an adviser to the department. Elder Packer said: “The music of the Church should not just please musicians but should bring inspiration to the general membership. What might be considered great art may not necessarily be appropriate for Latter-day Saint worship. Our great challenge is not so much to lead out in art, but to inspire. We should work to build music that is musically beautiful and perfect, but which also has inspirational value. If we must sacrifice, let it not be in inspirational value. All musical offerings should be selected and performed so as to inspire the listener, for without the presence of the Spirit, music becomes mere ‘brass and tinkling cymbal.’”

The gospel is preached through song as well as in other ways, and therefore, appropriate music is vital in our worship. For instance, we have reached the point where in some stake conferences the Saints don’t sing hymns as often as they should. We may be having too many special anthems by choirs, without involving the congregation. It is all right to have both anthems and hymns, as our advisers pointed out, but we should emphasize hymns. In other words, we want functional music in our worship service. By functional I mean inspirational. If it isn’t inspirational, why are we singing it? The publication Simplified Accompaniments, Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Deseret Book Co., 1972] is a step in the right direction to help us sing our hymns a little better.

Q: Do you have a schedule for the production of a new hymnal?

Elder Stone: No, hymn writing should be an ongoing process and not something that starts and stops. We desire to receive the creative products of our members continually so that when we do publish a new hymnal, we will have a legacy of hymns to draw from and will not be forced into a last-minute effort.

Q: How do you go about preparing a new hymnal? Is there an open invitation to the Church membership for contributions?

Elder Stone: Yes, we encourage the creative efforts of all our members. We now have committees and personnel available to develop a program where we can educate people as to what makes a good hymn. We have a text committee to solicit good texts and help people create them. We cannot really think in terms of a new hymnal unless we have new hymns.

What we need to do is to recapture the zeal exhibited by the early pioneers when they were creating wonderful hymns for us. We ought to be able to do this with the resources we have at hand. We have the best of the past. We also have specialized people upon whom we can depend to lead out in the production of new hymns and new Church music for general use and not just for special projects.

Q: How do you involve and use talented Latter-day Saint musicians?

Elder Stone: We have a composition committee responsible for involving talented musicians throughout the Church. We have a file of Church musicians, and we want to increase this file and to draw upon these good people. This committee could then provide music for any given request.

Q: Would this committee specifically compose a piece for an area music festival, say, or would they recommend material already published?

Elder Stone: It would be possible to do both—to suggest something from our library or to compose new music, if time permitted. Hopefully, the Saints involved in these local projects would be able to compose music themselves and utilize their own talents, calling upon us only when additional help is needed. We will provide guidance to help them when they need it. We are seeking talented people at regional levels to assist us.

Q: You mentioned a library; does the Church Music Department have a loan library?

Elder Stone: No. We are working to establish a reference library that will contain a catalog of materials suggested for Church use. We will provide listings of recommended materials with information on how such materials may be obtained.

This means that when someone in the field creates music for a particular need, we can have it on file in the central library; then when someone in another area has a similar need, this music can be suggested to them.

Q: How do you feel about the music that is currently being produced in the Church?

Elder Stone: There are many new hymns and songs that I love. One of my favorites is Naomi W. Randall’s “I Am a Child of God.” I carry a copy of that with me and quote the lyrics when I speak at stake conferences, because I think it has one of the most timely messages of any song in recent years—it goes right to the heart of a problem.

There are many other areas just as vital to the human spirit. For instance, Reid Nibley wrote: “I know my Father lives and loves me too;/ The Spirit whispers this to me and tells me it is true.” That’s a beautiful insight into the witness of the Spirit of the Holy Ghost without getting into abstract terms that a child cannot understand.

We have had an upsurge in children’s music with publication of Sing with Me [Deseret Book Co., 1966]. There is some very progressive music in it, as well as some that is very conservative; within those pages we hope that the children throughout the Church find songs they can identify with and enjoy singing.

Church music must have a tremendous scope; it must range from the simple to the complex. The challenge is to produce a large number of new hymns, songs, and anthems that will proclaim the gospel message to all people.

Q: What do you see as the primary role of music in the Church?

Elder Stone: Sacred music is a tool to further the purposes of the Lord; it inspires the Saints and allows them to express their devotion through singing. Such music, in combination with the Spirit, is a powerful force. As we go to conferences with the Saints, we try to do two things: to motivate people and to spiritually uplift them. And as spirituality is introduced into our meetings, it confirms the gospel in people’s hearts and helps them rededicate themselves. When I go to general conference, for example, I am moved by the words and music to a rededication of my life.

At the close of the general conference in October 1972, President Harold B. Lee said that we may not remember anything that had been said there, but he hoped we would remember the feeling. That is the role of Church music, to help accomplish this. We cannot do the entire job, but we surely can help.

We must also keep in mind that music plays a major role in our worship services. Much of the sacrament meeting, for example, is taken up in the singing of hymns and anthems. Such singing plays a major role in the active participation by the members. This is why we have been encouraging wards to have choirs. If they don’t have a sufficient number of choir members at first, we ask that they start with four people, and then get four more until they have a choir. We think a choir adds tremendously to worship service.

Q: Does music have a part to play in the home?

Elder Stone: Yes, it does. I know how important it has been in my life, although when President Lee called me to this assignment I told him I was not a musician. The only musical experience I have ever had was my attempts to play a saxophone in my youth.

But I love music, and everyone in my family is musical. My sons put themselves through college by playing in their own bands. We’ve always had music in our home, and so I recognize the importance of developing children’s abilities in music, not only for use in the ward but also in the homes.

Encouragement of music in the family is one of our most important goals. We need to create some fun songs and religious songs that families can sing and enjoy together.

Overall, we hope to provide music for the Church and for the home that will build and confirm testimonies. When we have accomplished that, we have accomplished what we should be doing in Church music.